I had been planning to defer commenting on the death of Steve Jobs long enough to give its impact time to cool a little, but Against Nostalgia puts the case I would have made so well and so publicly that it has changed my mind.
I met Steve Jobs once in 1999 when I was the president of the Open Source Initiative, and got caught up in one of his manipulations in a way that caused a brief controversy but (thankfully) did the organization no lasting harm. The author of this piece, Mike Daisey, does well at capturing Jobs’s ruthless brilliance. Jobs was uncannily perceptive about the interface design and marketing of technology, but he was also a control freak who posed as an iconoclast – and after about 1980 he projected his control freakery on everything he shaped. The former trait did a great deal of good; the latter did a degree of harm that, sadly, may prove greater in the end.
It’s easy to point at the good Steve Jobs did. While he didn’t invent the personal computer, he made it cool, twice. Once in 1976 when the Apple II surpassed all the earlier prototypes, and again in 1984 with the introduction of the Mac. I’ll also always be grateful for the way Jobs built Pixar into a studio that combined technical brilliance with an artistic sense and moral centeredness that has perhaps been equaled in the history of animated art, but never exceeded.
But the Mac also set a negative pattern that Jobs was to repeat with greater amplification later in his life. In two respects; first, it was a slick repackaging of design ideas from an engineering tradition that long predated Jobs (in this case, going back to the pioneering Xerox PARC WIMP interfaces of the early 1970s). Which would be fine, except that Jobs created a myth that arrogated that innovation to himself and threw the actual pioneers down the memory hole.
Second, even while Jobs was posing as a hip liberator from the empire of the beige box, he was in fact creating a hardware and software system so controlling and locked down that the case couldn’t even be opened without a special cracking tool. The myth was freedom, but the reality was Jobs’s way or the highway. Such was Jobs’s genius as a marketer that he was able to spin that contradiction as a kind of artistic integrity, and gain praise for it when he should have been slammed for hypocrisy.
Nearly a quarter-century later Jobs would repeat the same game with the iPhone. The people who did the actual innovating in smartphones – notably Danger with their pioneering Hiptop – got thrown down the memory hole by Jobs’s mythmaking (though in this case some of its principals would later achieve a kind of revenge by designing Android). And the iPhone “ecosystem” became notorious not merely for the degree of control and rent-seeking it imposed, but for the Kafkaesque vagueness and arbitrariness of Apple’s policies.
The velvet glove over Jobs’s iron fist was thinner that second time around; like most people who attract a cult following, he became increasingly convinced of his own infallibility. It was an error that eventually killed him; the kind of pancreatic cancer he had was essentially curable with early surgical intervention, but Jobs insisted on treating it with “alternative medicine” that didn’t work.
But by all accounts, when Jobs wasn’t deliberately mythologizing as a marketing gesture he was brutally honest about his own successes and failures. Mike Daisey thinks (and, on my limited exposure to the man, I agree) that Jobs would have mocked most of the hagiography now being directed at him. Daisey writes this in summary towards the end of his piece:
Mr. Jobs’s magic has its costs. We can admire the design perfection and business acumen while acknowledging the truth: with Apple’s immense resources at his command he could have revolutionized the industry to make devices more humanely and more openly, and chose not to. If we view him unsparingly, without nostalgia, we would see a great man whose genius in design, showmanship and stewardship of the tech world will not be seen again in our lifetime. We would also see a man who in the end failed to “think different,” in the deepest way, about the human needs of both his users and his workers.
I think that’s a fair assessment. For me, the emphasis would be slightly different. I’m less bothered than Daisey about the nasty conditions at Foxconn, because those workers can quit any time they choose (a lot of other manufacturing jobs in China are competing for their hours). I’m more concerned about the lock-in Jobs has inflicted on Apple users – subtler, but in its own way much more difficult to escape.
And I’m most concerned about the way that the example Jobs set affects people who aren’t Apple users at all. I don’t mind so much that Jobs made the walled-garden model of computers and smartphones immensely profitable for a while; the lure of that will pass because the economic fundamentals of software are against it, and I never had anything against the profit motive to begin with.
What’s really troubling is that Jobs made the walled garden seem cool. He created a huge following that is not merely resigned to having their choices limited, but willing to praise the prison bars because they have pretty window treatments.
I’m not in doubt that this is what exercises Richard M. Stallman, as well. RMS, who is quite like Jobs was in that he’s brutally honest when he’s not mythologizing himself for marketing reasons, has caught a lot of flak for his unsparing take on Jobs’s legacy. Certainly RMS’s remarks were rude, intemperate, and ill-timed – so much so that one of his more prominent former supporters has called for forking the FSF as a result.
But, though it’s often been my job in the past to be a peacemaker after RMS has made the open-source community look bad in public, I can’t disagree with the actual substance of what RMS wrote, and I won’t pretend to. Mike Daisey’s article, though written from a perspective well outside the open-source community’s, does a good job of explaining why I have to agree with RMS on this one.
Commerce is powerful, but culture is even more persistent. The lure of high profits from secrecy rent can slow down the long-term trend towards open source and user-controlled computing, but not really stop it. Jobs’s success at hypnotizing millions of people into a perverse love for the walled garden is more dangerous to freedom in the long term than Bill Gates’s efficient but brutal and unattractive corporatism. People feared and respected Microsoft, but they love and worship Apple – and that is precisely the problem, precisely the reason Jobs may in the end have done more harm than good.
RMS, for all his flaws, understands that the stakes in this argument go beyond narrow issues like what computer or smartphone to buy. Human cognition is messy and all sorts of ethical and aesthetic reasoning run together in peoples’ heads; we cannot expect people to love tyranny in small things like smartphones without becoming less resistant to tyranny in larger matters. That is why Appleolatry has implications for more than just what goes on in consumer-electronics stores — and little wonder that RMS lost his temper over it.
RMS is, finally, right about one last thing. Our best hope to keep the good parts of Jobs’s legacy and shed the bad is that his successors will prove far less competent. Tim Cook is not the raucous buffoon that Steve Ballmer is, but neither has he ever been accused of grand vision or the kind of dangerous charisma that Jobs wielded like a blade. Without the Jobs magic, it seems likely that the cultism around Apple will subside. Perhaps the threat to freedom will subside with it.